Like most of us, Sasha Burbank*, is exhausted. She’s spent “at least 15 hours” of the past few weeks thinking and worrying about alternate childcare arrangements for her two kids, as a result of the pandemic. Her 1-year-old son’s daycare has yet to reopen, and her 4-year-old daughter’s school will be fully virtual until at least November 6. Those 15 hours, by the way, don’t include the time spent, well, arranging those arrangements.
The solution: a nanny for her youngest, shared with another family, and a learning “pod” with three other children for her oldest.
“I’ve really hated the process,” she says, describing the many compromises that have been negotiated to address the educational, financial and health needs of so many different families. “I’m worried we’ve ruined some friendships, and it has been highly stressful on all of us.”
But there’s one group it’s been decidedly less stressful for: the dads. That’s because while Sasha’s spouse participated in interviewing nannies and teachers, and helped review contracts (with “lots of prodding”), it was the moms of the pod who took the lead on placing ads, managing logistics, agreeing on safety measures such as mask-wearing and hashing out a homeschooling curriculum.
Here’s my bias: Sasha is a friend of mine. I was struggling to plan my own “pod” with some mom friends, and I noticed a conspicuous absence: dads.
My son attends a New York City public elementary school, where he will be going back part-time in the fall. I knew he’d need childcare for his “virtual learning” days and after-school too, so I spent most of my summer texting and calling the working moms in my orbit. What are you thinking about school this fall?
Some were hesitant to send their kids back, for health or learning issues, and opted to keep them home. Some were worried about losing their jobs if their kids weren’t in school full-time. Some were worried about the prohibitive costs of paying a sitter or sending older kids to daycare. All of us sat through hours of virtual meetings with the school principal. All of us agonized over our decisions. Was it right for our child? Was it right for our family? Was it right for our career? Was it right for the community at large?
All of us spent hours each evening staring at the ceiling, thinking, worrying, plotting and planning, while our husbands snoozed peacefully at our sides. All of us spent hours sending emails and sitting on Zoom calls, reeling off a seemingly never-ending list of questions, while our husbands kept working, uninterrupted.
Let me be clear: My husband is not a slacker spouse, by any means. He cooks, he cleans, he watches the kids. Similarly, my friends’ husbands are all good, highly involved dads. But like most American families, I have fallen into a pattern where I shoulder the mental load of directing our children’s lives. I schedule the doctor’s appointments, I plan the playdates, I sign them up for soccer. By and large, I perform the emotional labor too: I worry that my 1-year-old daughter isn’t getting the speech development she needs because the teachers at her daycare all wear masks (as they should) and that my outgoing 5-year-old son is going to get deeply depressed sitting six feet apart from his friends all day at school (as he should).
I’m not alone. While study after study shows that dads today take on a far bigger share of housework and childcare than their predecessors—and that households have become more equitable during a pandemic where survival requires a team effort—family management is almost exclusively handled by moms. Even stretched-too-thin working moms. Even when they’re breadwinners.
But the mental load of parenting during a pandemic is overwhelming, particularly for two-parent working families. Especially when schools have closed and our elected officials have offered few viable alternatives for keeping our kids safe and learning while we work. We’re all screwed right now. But working moms are disproportionately screwed.
I’ve already begged dads to step up on childcare during this crisis. Now, I’m begging again: Dads, you have to take on more of the mental load of planning around school closures. You need to attend the PTA meetings. You need to find like-minded families for a babysitting share, or call neighborhood daycares. You need to place an ad for the babysitter. You need to interview candidates. You need to write the contracts. You need to research homeschooling curriculum. You need to plan the daily schedule. You need to plot the COVID-19 protocols, and determine the backup plan in case of a quarantine or lockdown. You need to step up.
To be frank, I’m still hashing it out in my own home. We ultimately decided we could only afford to be part of a “pod” for around 10 hours a week, so we’ll be overseeing most of our son’s virtual learning ourselves. I’ve started assigning my husband, who has returned to working in an office, specific childcare-planning tasks: Ask our accountant how we would process payroll for a nanny, and how much it would cost. (The answer for us: too much.) Ask your boss for the flexibility to work from home one or two days a week. Figure out a schedule for those days.
Outsourcing these administrative chores has helped lighten my load, but I’m still the captain of the ship. And I’ve been sailing it through choppy waters for months now. I’m beyond exhausted. I’ve settled into a state of numb acceptance. Working moms are at sea, dads. Throw us a lifeline.
*Name has been changed